Our universe is both massive and fascinating. While we have a pretty elevated view of ourselves as humans, whenever we peer into the cosmos we really see how small we are in compared to the rest of whats out there. The lowest astronomical figures say there are 100 billion galaxies (that’s 100,000,000,000) in the universe, and our Milky Way is only one. Take the Earth – and multiply it times 17 billion. That’s how many Earth-sized worlds exist only in the Milky Way Galaxy. Multiply that times 100 billion galaxies and you have a massive universe, not even counting the stars and non-Earth-sized planets. Here, we focus on some of the most amazing aspects of our universe: galaxies. The masses of stars, planets, debris, dark matter, and more follow some general patterns but sometimes even they break tradition and amaze us, earning them a spot on this list of the strangest and most bizarre galaxies in the universe.
Most of the strange galaxies on this list are known to astronomers by two classifications: the Messier catalog or the New General Catalog. Messier’s catalog was compiled in 1771 by French astronomer Charles Messier as a way to organize the host of cosmic discoveries happening at the time. A particular fan of comets, Messier made the list with his assistant Pierre Méchain to filter out non-comet items. The New General Catalog (NGC) of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars is a collection of various types of deep sky objects compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer. Numerous revisions have cleaned up the listing, now one of the most comprehensive catalogs to date with 7,840 deep space objects.
From a galaxy which resembles a cosmic sunflower unfolding before our eyes to a hellish-looking mass of gas and matter to violent galactic collisions which seem oh-so-peaceful in still images, here are the 25 Most Bizarre Galaxies in the Universe.
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We start off our list of the strangest galaxies in the universe with one of the most impressive – Messier 82. Known as M82, this galaxy is five times brighter than the entire Milky Way due to the rapid birth of young stars – a rate 10 times greater than inside our own galaxy. Over time, stars will be created so quickly they will devour each other. (The red plumes coming out from the center are glowing hydrogen gas being ejected from M82’s center.)
Formally known as Messier 63, the aptly nicknamed Sunflower Galaxy looks as though it belongs in Vincent Van Gogh’s repertoire. This cosmic beauty boasts bright, winding arms made up of newly formed blue-white giant stars. Just as with this sunflower design, galaxies are also known for mimicking natural designs such as whirlpools and arms.
MACS J0717 is one of the strangest (astronomically-speaking) galaxies on this list. Technically a galaxy cluster, MACS J0717 was formed by the collision of four other galaxies. A stream of galaxies, gas, and dark matter over 13 million light years long are colliding in an area already dense with matter, creating fascinating images for us to see.
If Santa Claus has a favorite galaxy, it would be this one. Messier 74 is often talked about by astronomers around Christmas time since the spiral arms’ clusters of young blue stars and the bright, glowing balls of ionized hydrogen make it look like a Christmas wreath.
Baby Boom Galaxy
A starburst galaxy about 12.2 billion light years away from Earth, the Baby Boom Galaxy was discovered in 2008. The aptly named galaxy takes the cake as the brightest starburst galaxy in the very distant universe, thanks to its incredibly rapid star formation – a rate of one star about every 2 hours. In contrast, our Milky Way Galaxy produces a new star on average once every 36 days.
Milky Way Galaxy
Our own Milky Way Galaxy is indeed one of the strangest galaxies in the universe – one of the most impressive too; and that’s not just us feeling proud. Our massive galaxy is home to at least 100 billion planets and up to a trillion stars – some of which are among the oldest in the known universe.
The galaxy cluster IDCS 1426 boasts multiple accolades. Observed by scientists when the universe was less than a third of its age today, IDCS 1426 is the most massive galaxy cluster in the early universe. It also weighs nearly 500 trillion Suns, a number that’s pretty hard for us to realistically imagine. The bright, blue core of gas is the result of galactic collision, sloshing around much as wine would slosh around in a sommelier’s glass before settling.
I Zwicky 18
The galaxy I Zwicky 18 has a host of titles as a starburst galaxy, blue compact galaxy, dwarf irregular galaxy, and one of the strangest galaxies in the universe. Astronomers are still confused by this galaxy which shows star development typical of galaxy formation from the earliest days of the universe. (It’s also strange that a large amount of ionized helium is present, making scientists wonder what is emitting radiation strong enough to kick electrons off their helium atoms.)
NGC 6744 is a large spiral galaxy which astronomers believe is one of the most similar to our own. Located about 30 million light years away, the galaxy’s elongated core and puffy arms are quite reminiscent of our Milky Way.
The galaxy known as NGC 6872 is the second largest spiral galaxy ever discovered. It’s beautiful tail (ironic that it is in the constellation of Pavo, the Peacock) is a stretched arm full of star-forming regions. Since this strange galaxy doesn’t have much free hydrogen, it relies on material pulled from nearby IC 4970 (just above in the picture) for star birth.
Found around 4.3 billion light years from Earth, MACS J0416 looks more like what the kids at Woodstock saw while the musicians played. The bright purple and pink colors hide a deeper struggle here, namely that two galaxy clusters are about to collide.
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M60 & NGC 4647 - The galaxy couple
Though most galaxies’ gravitational pulls bring them closer together, there’s no evidence of that with Messier 60 and NGC 4647. But there’s no evidence of them drifting apart either. Like content old lovers, the two galaxies drift together in space, exhibiting only minor tidal interaction between them.
Located nearby to #25, Messier 81 is a spiral galaxy with a supermassive black hole 70 million times greater than the mass of the sun at its center. M81 is home to many short-living but hot-burning blue stars which heat nearby dust as seen in its spiral arms. Gravitational interactions with M82 have seen both galaxies pulling hydrogen gas away from each other, resulting in wispy lines of gas or high amounts of interstellar gas accumulating in their centers, leading to the rapid star formation.
About 600 million years ago, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 crashed into each other, beginning a massive exchange of stars and galactic matter. Though scientists think the galaxies look like an antennae, it looks to us like it would be better known as the love galaxy.
Amateur astronomers eagerly flock to the Sombrero Galaxy, so named because of its bright nucleus and large central bulge. Add in this spiral galaxy’s easily evident dust lane and it looks like a sombrero in the sky.
This blurry galaxy is known by the seemingly overcomplicated name of 2MASX J16270254+4328340. The result of two galaxies merging, this strange galaxy has produced a fine mist consisting of millions of stars radiating out from its center. The mist is expected to slowly dissipate since the entire galaxy is nearing the end of its life with its stars cooling and dimming.
Not too strange (though immensely beautiful) on first look, the spiral galaxy NGC 5793 is better known for a rare phenomenon: masers. We’re familiar with lasers, which emit light in the visible range of the spectrum, but not as much with masers, which emit light in the microwave range. Masers are not-too-common, astronomically speaking, and produce light by absorbing surrounding energy and re-emitting it in the spectrum’s microwave range.
This image shows a nebula (NGC 604) located in one of spiral arms of galaxy Messier 33. Over 200 immensely hot stars heat the ionized hydrogen gas of the nebula, making it fluoresce as seen here from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Sometimes debated if it’s a satellite of the larger, nearby Andromeda Galaxy, the Triangulum Galaxy AKA Messier 33 is the third largest in our Local Group.)
Sometimes referred to as the Helix Galaxy, NGC 2685 is a polar ring galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. One of the first polar ring galaxies identified, NGC 2685 has an outer ring of gas and stars rotating around the galaxy’s poles, making it one of the rarest types of galaxies. (Most matter in galaxies orbits the equator, not the poles.) Scientists still aren’t sure what causes the polar rings, but theorize these galaxies may pull matter from passing galaxies.
Messier 94 looks like the most terrifying hurricane which could ever hit our planet. This starburst galaxy is surrounded by bright blue rings of rapidly forming stars. The rapid birth regions are likely due to a pressure wave emanating from the galaxy’s center, compressing the outer regions’ gas and dust to coalesce into clouds then stars.
Formally known as Abell 2744, this galaxy cluster is known as Pandora’s Cluster due to the host of strange phenomena resulting from the convergence of multiple smaller galaxy clusters. This picture shows the irregularly shaped cluster in blue.
Looking more like the colored sprinkles on a birthday cake, NGC 5408 is a remarkable irregular galaxy in the constellation of Centaurus. Though not as well-put-together as spiral or elliptical galaxies, NGC 5408 is equally as strange and interesting due to the ultraluminous X-rays it puts out. Scientists still aren’t sure what cause them but speculate it could an intermediate mass black hole.
The Whirlpool Galaxy, officially known as M51a or NGC 5194, is a galaxy large enough and close enough to us that amateur astronomers can see it on a dark night with binoculars. The Whirlpool Galaxy was the first to be classified as a spiral galaxy and is particularly interesting for its interaction with the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195, one of the most well-known galactic interactions in astronomy. This impressive and hellish-looking picture shows the Whirlpool Galaxy in both visual light (on the left – showing its stars) and infrared light (on the right – showing its dust structure).
Galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 is one of the coolest clusters we’ve ever found. Resembling a uniquely human figure (like the snowman on the asteroid Vesta from our Strange Things About the Universe list), everyone can see the smiling face of this galaxy. The eyes and nose are galaxies but the curved lines are due to gravitational lensing. Since the cluster has so much mass, it bends and distorts the light around it, creating this happy arc.
NGC3314a & NGC3314b
Though these two galaxies look as though they’re colliding, it’s just a matter of perspective. From our vantage point on Earth, these two galaxies seem to overlap each other but are actually tens of millions of light years apart. Nonetheless, they produce one of the coolest and strangest galactic images ever recorded.